Settling in Formosa: Part 2

John Grant Ross's notebook from when he was in the Altai Mountains of Mongolia in 1995

New Zealand writer and publisher John Grant Ross has spent more than 30 years living in and reporting on Asia. His solo travels have taken him to destinations including Papua New Guinea, Mongolia, and Myanmar, where he wrote dispatches on the Karen insurgency. Since moving to Taiwan in 1994, Ross has authored several books and co-founded Camphor Press, the island’s leading publisher of English-language books on Taiwanese politics and history. Today, he also co-hosts the popular podcast Formosa Files. Ron Hanson spoke to Ross about his long journey off the beaten path.   

In part two of three, Ross talks about writing books and establishing Camphor Press.  

You can read part one here 

A watershed moment came when John Grant Ross wrote Formosan Odyssey, first self-published in 2002. Initially intended as a travel account, unforeseen circumstances would intervene and force Ross to adapt and write a different kind of book from what he had originally envisioned.  

“It was going to be a travel book, mostly hiking through the mountains,” Ross says, “but that very night, the morning before I was to leave on this trip, a huge earthquake struck Taiwan. This was 1999, September 21. More than 2,300 people died. All the mountain trails and roads were ripped up and destroyed. So my book changed right away. I switched to writing a book about the history of Taiwan with a little bit of travel mixed in, so it’s a hybrid, whereas originally I’d planned it to be a travelog.”     

The book begins with Ross laying out maps on his bedroom floor and preparing for the trip. But hours later, he was awoken by the earthquake. After a week of unsettling aftershocks, he embarks on a new journey, with much of the original route encased within a disaster zone.   

Ross’ account takes us through contemporary sites such as Wanhua’s Snake Alley and Taroko National Park, his interactions with locals, and the culture shock of adjusting to his new home. But it also guides the reader through a broad sweep of Taiwanese history from Ming loyalist general Koxinga’s siege of the Dutch Fort Zealandia of 1661-62, through tumultuous eras of colonial rule and uprisings, and up to the island's economic miracle and transition to democracy.           

Author John Grant Ross with students in Meishan, Yunlin County, Taiwan in 1995. Image: Supplied

After several rejections from publishers, Ross decided to self-publish Formosan Odyssey and work with a local distributor to get the publication into stores. The book sold quickly and was enthusiastically received. It became somewhat of a cult classic, though Ross is humble about its success.  

“An author would like to think it was the writing quality that was behind this,” Ross says, “but if I were interrogated — subject to sleep deprivation, drink deprivation, and assorted horrors — I would likely be reduced to a sobbing wreck and say it was largely a matter of a lack of competition. There simply weren’t many Taiwan books in English aimed at the general reader.”  

One fan of the book was UK marketer Michael Cannings who had moved to Taiwan in 2002 and himself became fascinated by the rich tapestry of Taiwan's myriad histories. In 2013, Cannings approached Ross with the idea of re-publishing Formosan Odyssey as an e-book. Their discussions led to them forming the publishing house Camphor Press the following year. Cannings would handle administrative and book formatting duties, while Ross would be responsible for development and acquisitions. American Mark Swofford was brought in to take care of copyediting.      

The cover of Formosan Odyssey, by John Grant Ross. Formosan Odyssey was his second book and was self-published in 2002 Image: Supplied

Camphor’s publications cover history, politics, and contemporary fiction from Taiwan and throughout Asia. Its titles also include rare previously out-of-print publications. In less than ten years, Camphor has published more than 100 books. The publisher has proved highly influential. After some initial years of struggle, by 2017, the Taipei Times reported that Camphor was dominating the Taiwan English-language book scene.  

That same year, Camphor acquired the back catalogue of US publishing house EastBridge. This includes the English translation of the bestselling Korean novel Everlasting Empire which had sold more than one million copies in its original language and been turned into an award-winning film.   

It includes works of creative non-fiction by Pearl S. Buck, the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1938. Buck’s memoirs Fighting Angel and The Exile, both first published in 1936 and since republished by Camphor, chronicle the lives of her parents, who spent time living in China when Buck’s father was posted there as a missionary.   

Camphor also republished the historically important book Formosa Betrayed, written by US diplomatic officer George H. Kerr after he witnessed the bloody 228 massacre by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists and the subsequent period of White Terror. The “betrayal” refers to the disappointment of Taiwanese in discovering that the Chinese Nationalists were perhaps even worse than the previous Japanese colonial rulers, but also to US culpability in the tragedy.   

A selection of books published by Camphor Press. Image: Supplied

But Camphor’s best-selling title is Ian Easton’s 2017 book The Chinese Invasion Threat: Taiwan's Defense and American Strategy in Asia. The book contains a foreword by controversial former US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo. Ross jokes dryly that despite its success, he hopes the publication goes out of print and becomes irrelevant.   

One of Camphor’s most intriguing titles, Formosa Calling, was authored by a New Zealander, Allan J. Shackleton. “He was with the United Nations,” Ross says of Shackleton. “He was here in Taiwan in 1947, and he witnessed the 228 massacre. Now, he was quite traumatized by it, and he wanted to tell the world. So, he’s back in New Zealand, and he writes up a manuscript, but he can’t find a publisher. It was much too sensitive. It was during the Cold War, and New Zealand was an ally of the Republic of China, the Nationalists.  

“Shackleton died in 1984, and the manuscript for this book on the massacre and the looting lay in a chest somewhere. In 1997, someone called Stanley Liao, the president of the Taiwanese New Zealand Association, was looking to do some activity to mark the 50th anniversary of 228, and he’d seen a book that mentioned Shackleton’s name.   

“He thought, maybe I’ll contact the family and see if they have any pictures. So, this Taiwanese chap called everyone in New Zealand called Shackleton in the telephone directory. He found the family and got hold of the manuscript, and in 1998 finally published it. It went out of print, so Camphor Press republished it.”   

You can read the final part of the series here, where Ross talks about bringing his love of Taiwanese history to his popular podcast series Formosa Files. To read part one, click here.

- Asia Media Centre